March is Women’s History Month so we will be showcasing exceptional Mississippi women and related collections on the blog. This post was written by MDAH volunteer Jessica D. Kelly.
Continuing with the theme of Women’s History Month, “Women’s Education—Women’s Empowerment,” the inspirational story of Berta Lee “Bert” White (1914-2004) will be highlighted. As the former State Women’s Committee Chair of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, her legacy lives on through the Berta Lee White Scholarship. It is “awarded to a woman who is a member of a Mississippi Farm Bureau family seeking a degree in the field of agriculture at a state institution,” but before there was a scholarship created in her honor, Bert White lived the life of a farmer in Bailey, Mississippi.1 She was born in 1914, a time when American farmers were recognizing a need for more commodities due to World War I. Berta was just four years old when the increased demand ended in 1918 and surpluses began threatening the farm community.2 “Farmers needed fair market prices for their hard work and a secure source of quality supplies at reasonable prices.”3 Thus, efforts to organize county Farm Bureaus in Mississippi were underway and by 1922 the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF) had effectively been formed.4
White would eventually become highly involved with the MFBF, until then she remained focused on the well-being of her family and neighbors. One year before the Great Crash of 1929, at the age of fourteen, Berta eloped to marry her eighteen year old school sweetheart, a union which joined two neighboring 100-acre farms. The couple soon gained responsibility for maintenance of the farm along with the responsibility of maintaining jobs off the farm in order to supplement their income.5 As the Great Depression took its toll on the nation, White recalled “We shared what we had and made the best of conditions.”6
We didn’t really think of ourselves as doing without. There was no electricity in rural Mississippi, so we weren’t forced to do without conveniences. We had food from our gardens. We had a milk cow and our own livestock and chickens. No one in our area went hungry. You knew what your neighbors had and what they needed. There was an understanding that your garden was there to be shared.7
White’s initiative, indomitable spirit, and love of community were reflected in the way she responded to this harrowing time in our nation’s history. Ultimately, it was her love of community that prompted her to join the Lauderdale County Farm Bureau as a volunteer. White’s volunteer activities included an appointment as the chairman of the county Farm Bureau membership committee as well as membership on several local boards.8 Her accomplishments as a volunteer became well-known throughout the state and in 1953 Bert White was elected MFBF’s Women’s Chairman. In 1964, she was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives and then to the State Senate four years later, where she served until 1975.9
Berta White’s many leadership roles, no doubt, shaped her views regarding the value of education. While serving as a State Senator, White’s ambition to complete her formal education was fulfilled after five years of study. She once stated that “college was one of the most interesting periods of my life.”10 White earned a Bachelor of Science and Arts degree in Political Science at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. She enrolled as a full-time student when the legislature was in recess, but when it was in session she would still drive 100 miles to attend classes after the legislative session had closed.11 White’s drive and determination to gain knowledge that would ameliorate conditions in her state and in the lives of farmers around the world cannot be denied as her career consistently demonstrated these values.
In 1981, White was elected chairman of the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Women’s Committee, a role she held for 10 years. During this time, she served as chairman of the Country Women’s Council, USA, and vice president of Associated Country Women of the World.12 She was also a delegate at eight world conferences. White’s goal to enhance public understanding of agriculture is well documented and reflected in the following statement: “We, [as farmers], have a responsibility to get involved and to relate to the public in terms they can understand.”13 White’s passion for agriculture, education, and the farming community as a whole, induced farmers from around the globe to get involved in shaping public opinion and the future of agriculture. Berta Lee White was a truly remarkable Mississippi woman.
1 “Member Benefits: Scholarships,” Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation: The Voice of Mississippi Agriculture, accessed March 13, 2012, http://www.msfb.com/Member_Benefits/scholarships.aspx.
2 “About Us: A Brief History of Farm Bureau in Mississippi,” Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation: The Voice of Mississippi Agriculture, accessed March 13, 2012, http://www.msfb.com/About_Us/History.aspx.
3 Working Together . . . Works (Jackson, MS: MFC Services, 1976). MDAH Subject File “Farm Bureau Federation.”
4 “About Us: A Brief History of Farm Bureau in Mississippi.”
5 Jack King, “Berta White: A Lifelong Dedication to Agriculture,” Rural Development Publications Collections, Yearbook of Agriculture (1990): 51-52, http://naldc.nal.usda.gov/catalog/IND20402073, accessed March 13, 2012.
6 King, “Berta White: A Lifelong Dedication to Agriculture,” 51.
9 Edward L. Blake, Farm Bureau in Mississippi, Vol. II (Jackson, MS: Cain Lithographers, 1996), 146.
10 King, “Berta White: A Lifelong Dedication in Agriculture,” 51.
12 Blake, Farm Bureau in Mississippi, 146.
13 King, “Berta White: A Lifelong Dedication in Agriculture,” 52.